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Stand-Up Comedy’s Growing Role in Addressing Mental Health: Bo Burnham and Neal Brennan

There has always seemed to be a looming stereotype of comedians. While funny and lively on stage, they live a life shadowed by depression. It appears that comedians hold two personas: one for their shows, and one for real life. They manage to put on a happy face for the crowd to poke fun at societal issues, comment on daily observations, and deliver humorous anecdotes from their lives while concealing the darker side of their personalities.

unnamedEven when comedians reference their mental health issues, it seems like a call upon deaf ears. Back in the early 2000s, Mitch Hedberg occasionally referenced his drug addiction during his shows: “I used to do drugs, I still do, but I used to, too.” While that joke was humorous, it ignored the severity of his drug addiction. In 2005, Hedberg overdosed on heroin and cocaine.

While there are still comedians who comment on mindless matter, such as Jim Gaffigan’s routines on family and food, more and more comedians are opening up about their mental health issues during their shows. During Demetri Martin’s Live (At the Time) special, his “insides came out” during one joke: “Jokes that end in death don’t usually end happy…Kind of like life.” Even he was taken aback at his comment and had to recollect himself.

Despite their seemingly unprompted outbursts of emotion, some comedians have started to incorporate mental health into their shows. Jim Jeffries’ Bare special spends a significant amount of time commenting on gun control. One of his many reasons for gun control included suicide. He threw out the statistic that a gun owner is 80% more likely to use that gun on him or herself rather than on another person, and then he playfully sang a song about how people get sad from time to time. Even Tom Papa’s Live in New York City special had a bit about anti-depressants and how they are “a way to cheat the system.” Papa states that people aren’t supposed to be happy all the time, and that if they were, they would just sit in their rooms and be happy by themselves all day.

Further than just mentioning mental health, comedians Bo Burnham and Neal Brennan have made mental health the entire undertone for their performances.

Bo Burnham’s Make Happy follows his usual routine of performing satirical songs combined with his own unconventional stand-up. However, this special has an underlying message. He began his final song of the show, “Can’t Handle This,” by talking about mundane, unimportant problems, like having a Chipotle burrito spill out when being wrapped. Then, he changes the tone of the song and addresses how he pretends these minor problems are more important than the bigger issues he hides from. He questions whether he can “handle this right now,” concealing what he can’t handle. Perhaps his instability comes from achieving fame at 25 years old, the responsibility of delivering shows to make people happy, or even his own mental health. He sings, “Come watch the skinny kid with a steadily declining mental health, and laugh as he attempts to give you what he cannot give himself.” This line ties the whole song, show, and message together. Burnham’s job, when simply stated, is to make people happy, even if for only an hour. The resting irony of the piece is that Burnham can’t give himself the happiness that he wants to give his audience.

Even more so, Neal Brennan’s newest special 3 Mics delivers the most unconventional stand-up routine I’ve seen. He divides up his show into three segments: one-liners, stand-up, and “emotional stuff.” The one-liners and stand-up are ordinary, but the “emotional stuff” section isn’t stand-up. This section feels as if the audience is his therapist, listening to him open up about his failed relationship with his father, his depression, and his methods of improving his mental health. At most, he peppers in two jokes in the 30 minutes he dedicates to talking about his emotional stuff. I felt cheated because his “emotional stuff” detracted from his delivery of funny content, but I was so engrossed in his personal story. Hearing about his constant battle with depression, especially as someone who co-created the wildly successful Chappelle’s Show, shows that anyone is capable of falling ill to a mood disorder. His most powerful comment of the show is that telling someone with depression to cheer up is like telling someone with a cold to stop being sick.

Overall, I think the rise in stories about mental health issues in comedy comes from two factors: mood disorders are relatable to many people, and it provides comfort to hear someone “famous” talk about this. I think the most deflating part of having depression, anxiety, or any mood disorder, is that there’s a huge possibility of feeling alone. Mental health tends to fall by the wayside since people want to uphold an image of being happy, fun, and fine overall. This outlet of discussing mental health in comedy provides an inviting medium to hear real, famous people talk about problems they seemingly shouldn’t have. These comedians are successful, powerful, and wealthy, yet they can still be susceptible to mood disorders. It can be comforting to hear people open up, especially when you perceive them to be living in a dandy, perfect world.

Photo taken from Point Your Face at This: Drawings by Demetri Martin by Demetri Martin.

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